Wednesday 1 June 2011

War And Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of literature in the world.  It feels a bit sacreligious to write about such an icon in the world of literature.  So I won’t.  It would take too long to even begin to do justice to the complexity of the novel and besides, many people, much better qualified than I have already covered just about everything in and about the book.  What follows then is just a few brief comments about my experience of reading the novel.

This is the second time I have read War and Peace.  The first was almost 30 years ago.  I don’t remember much about it, other than I enjoyed it.  This time I came across the book quite by chance while wandering about the central library in Dundee.  The book stood out from the shelves of a new section promoting classics of world literature.  It also features a new and relatively recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  As I am trying to read lots of books from Eastern Europe as part of a new Reading Challenge, I felt I could not resist this opportunity to re-acquaint myself with this classic.

I had forgottoen just how long a novel War and Peace is.  This version comes in at over 1200 pages.  As each page is slightly bigger than the normal paperback, that is a lot of words.  I reckon that reading War and Peace is easily the equivalent of reading four regular novels.  As this version also kept in French the passages in the novel that were originally written in that language, it feels like I have also read a short novella in French.

War and Peace is not simply a novel.  Tolstoy had very clear ideas that he wanted to convey to the reader.  And this he did by including whole sections and chapters devoted to his views on history, the role of so-called „important people“ etc.  I once attended a course on becoming a writer, and one piece of advice I remember from this course is that an author should „show, not tell“.  It seems  a bit presumptuous to suggest that Tolstoy was less than perfect in how he wrote.  But, I did find these philosophyzing sections over-long and decidedly boring.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the main story I remembered from that first reading all those years ago.  The love stories, the travails of great families as they seek to survive, the power struggles within the court and within the army, and of course, the horrors and unpredictability of warfare.  All this and much more make up the bulk of the novel.  And it is all gripping and fascinating stuff.  Even more so, the characters, not just the main ones, but the minor ones as well, all come to life as real, living and breathing human beings.  On the whole Tolstoy is reluctant to judge his characters.  They, just like the rest of us, have their strengths and weaknesses.

All in all I enjoyed War and Peace, second time around.  It is a very long read and some parts, especially towards the end are, to my mind, superfluous, but neverthelss the good far outweighs any longueurs.  If you can find the time, then War and Peace is a must read.  The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is very readable, and comes with some brief notes about the political background and some of the real life figures mentioned in the text.

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